Hungry for Trade

John Madeley Hungry for Trade: how the poor pay for free trade (Zed Books, £9.99, $17.50)


This is a useful, well argued and readable guide to the current issues surrounding trade in agriculture and food self-sufficiency. The author shows how and why millions starve in Third World countries while the best land there is being used to feed the already well fed, and in many respects, overfed West.


The short answer is “trade” as we know it, particularly the ever more dominant liberalization of trade under the auspices of the WTO where everyone is forced onto the treadmill of the market economy.


John Madeley argues for agriculture to be made a special case, removed from the strictures of the WTO and Structural Adjustment Plans imposed by the IMF and World Bank.


He also sings the praises of “permaculture”, a rapidly spreading creed of reinvesting any profit beyond your immediate needs back into the land. This is clearly a way of increasing food self-sufficiency in poor countries. Madeley’s other inspiring example - the“fairtrade” movement - is a practical way of ensuring that producers retain a higher percentage of their profits and is proving more and more popular with discerning Western consumers.


This is fine as far as it goes : it is a sound argument for advocating plurality in economic planning, a real alternative to the juggernaut of free trade.


However, it remains a developing world solution.


I dissent  from Madeley’s  elevation of agriculture into something separate from and more important than any other production. This seem to me to be the old Romantic myth, that life in the Garden was an ideal to be regained  and that a farmer has an enhanced status because he produces food, unlike those alienated producers of things in dark satanic mills. Besides self-sufficiency as a goal and an ideal rings of happy, complacent and ignorant isolationism.  Food really is  a commodity and its trade needs rules. Madeley suggests taking agriculture out of the WTO because that body is dominated by transitional corporations (TNCs) but he offers no convincing case for how then to regulate agri-trade. Someone must  make up the rules and unless there is a challenge to TNC power, then whatever framework is dreamed up, it will still have the present imbalances, which Madeley shows to be so destructive.


The reviewer, Michael Hindley, is a former Member of the European Parliament. You can buy this book and a range of other titles of interest to activists through Zed’s website at